Modern technology makes it pretty difficult for a person to drop off the face of the Earth. We leave such large digital footprints everywhere we go that if you suddenly stop tweeting or Facebooking, a lot of folks are going to notice. That wasn't always the case.
As recently as the 1990s, vanishing forever used to be as simple as leaving your hometown without telling anyone or hiding in your boyfriend's closet, resulting in a whole mess of confusion when you showed up again years later, completely oblivious to how everyone thought you were totally dead, and may or may not have replaced you with an entirely different person. What we're trying to say is that missing persons cases used to get super weird.
5A "Missing" Child Is Mistakenly Taken Away From His Mother And Given To The Wrong Family
In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar vanished during a trip with his wealthy family at Swayze Lake in Louisiana, and the nation lost its fucking mind. Hundreds of volunteer rescuers scoured the swamp, dissecting alligators and dynamiting the water in hopes of uncovering little Bobby's body, but failed to turn anything up. Thankfully, eight months later, the Dunbar family received some shockingly good news: A child resembling Bobby had been found in Mississippi, travelling in the company of a drifter named William Cantwell Winters.
Dunbar Family Collection
Back in the days when not having a mustache made people suspect you were a pedophile.
Winters claimed the boy was his nephew, Bruce, the son of his brother and a family servant named Julia Anderson. However, the Dunbar family became convinced that Bruce was their missing Bobby. He had a burn scar on his left foot, just like Bobby, as well as a similar mole. And really, don't all of us have nothing but vague ideas of what our immediate family looks like, save for a few distinguishing marks?
Julia Anderson, for her part, stubbornly insisted that Bruce was her son. Historically, disputes over the parenthood of a child are resolved using empirical evidence or, like, proving one of the alleged parents is really a child-stealing robot or something. But in the case of "wealthy, well-respected family v. unwed servant woman," the court skipped the whole "evidence" thing and awarded custody of the boy to the Dunbars.
The Day Book
Many reporters invoked King Solomon, because back then,
"maybe hack the kid in two" was legitimate, responsible journalism.
Winters was charged with kidnapping and went to prison, but his conviction was soon overturned on a technicality. Bobby Dunbar was returned home, where his family continued raising him. He eventually had children of his own, and lived a full and happy life until his death in 1966.
The thing is, it wasn't really his life.
As the 21st Century rolled around, one of Bobby's grandchildren decided to research the case, and concluded that something was a little off about the whole thing. She convinced her father, Bobby Dunbar Jr., to take a DNA test, the results of which revealed that -- as you can guess -- he had no genetic connection to the Dunbar family. "Bobby Dunbar" had in fact been Julia Anderson's son Bruce, and had lived the last five decades of his life as the wrong person. Whoops!
Dunbar Family Collection
"On the bright side, at least you avoided living five decades in Mississippi."
That means William Winters was convicted of a nonexistent crime, Julia Anderson had her biological son stolen away from her, and the fate of the real Bobby Dunbar will remain a mystery forever. On the bright side, we learned that there's a place called "Swayze Lake" in Louisiana. So that's neat.
4A Missing Father Turns Up Years Later ... As A TV Host
In 1957, Lawrence Bader, an amateur archer and Akron-based cookware salesman, ignored severe storm warnings and took a boat out on Lake Erie. When his boat was discovered the next day, damaged, missing an oar, and without Bader in it, it didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened. Clearly, he'd gotten tossed overboard in the storm (or eaten by some manner of storm-dwelling lake monster). Rescuers searched the lake but never found him. Bader left behind three children and a pregnant wife, who received $40,000 in life insurance -- a princely sum in exchange for a dead patriarch in the 1950s.
Eight years later, a family friend was in Chicago when he encountered a man who looked eerily like Lawrence Bader. The doppelganger was John "Fritz" Johnson, a well-known radio and television personality in Omaha, Nebraska. Some of his notable endeavors included announcing pro wrestling matches and winning 13 archery titles, which was a favorite hobby of Bader's (archery, not wrestling matches).
Though what easier way to win wrestling matches than with an arrow to the knee?
Fritz Johnson insisted that he was not Bader. He claimed he was raised in an orphanage and served 14 years in the Navy before moving to Omaha, where he had a wife and two children. In other words, this dude was positive he was not Lawrence Bader. But he agreed to take a fingerprint test to put everyone's minds at ease. (It is unclear whether anyone tried to verify his military service, which you'd think would be easier.) To his own apparent astonishment, Johnson's fingerprints were a perfect match for Bader's.
"But that's utterly impossible! I have a mustache! He doesn't!"
Johnson's life fell apart almost immediately. His wife annulled their marriage, he lost his television job, and if this had taken place today, he would have certainly lost his Twitter verification check mark.
Bader's reappearance also caused problems for his first wife. His newfound aliveness meant the insurance company wanted their money back. Johnson maintained that he had no memory of his former life as Bader, and that he had a strange case of amnesia which, in addition to wiping his mind clean of any trace of Bader, had also implanted false memories in his head.
"Things haven't been the same since that big muscular Austrian guy convinced me to go to that 'Recall' place."
While it is admittedly strange that a man would submit to taking a fingerprint test if he was consciously lying about his identity (something Johnson fiercely argued), Bader was in a huge amount of financial trouble leading up to his disappearance. He was heavily in debt, and had a spot on the IRS' shit list for not paying his taxes for years. Add to that the fact that he had a mortgage and a large life insurance policy, and it's easy to see why he would've faked a drowning to abandon his life in Akron as a cookware salesman to become a popular local television personality.
Bader's family believed there was something wrong with him (which is clearly true), but he cunningly died of liver cancer before psychiatrists conclusively determined what had happened to him.